In his transformation from car-alarm magnate to Republican congressman and, now, candidate for governor, Rep. Darrell Issa has often recalled his rags-to-riches rise in the business world. Issa’s campaign Web site touts an achievement that seems to symbolize his story: “In 1994, Inc. Magazine recognized Darrell Issa as Entrepreneur of the Year.”
In fact, Issa has never won the prestigious national award. The founders of Outback Steakhouse took the magazine’s top “Entrepreneur of the Year” honors in 1994.
In an interview, Issa said that he actually had won a local Entrepreneur of the Year contest in San Diego -- he lives in Vista in northern San Diego County -- and that he hadn’t been trying to suggest that he had received national honors. The local contests are conducted as qualifying rounds for the national award.
“I was runner-up three, four, five times, whatever it was -- at least three -- in San Diego, and then I won the San Diego award,” Issa said. “Nobody would ever imply or mislead to, you know, something as simple as the Entrepreneur of the Year award.”
In his short political career, Issa -- so far the only declared Republican candidate for governor in the special election this fall -- has faced both small and large questions about his record in business and the military and his brushes with the law. Republican and Democratic opponents have accused him of concealing arrests as a youth and embellishing his personal story.
The Times examined Issa’s statements and campaign literature over the past 13 years and compared them with military records and other public documents. The review reveals a number of claims contradicted or unsupported by records and verifiable facts.
The Times offered Issa and his campaign aides opportunities to clarify the discrepancies. In interviews and written statements, Issa and the campaign provided explanations of their position on some questions.
In an interview Saturday, Issa said that questions about his past were “irrelevant to who is Darrell Issa now and who is Darrell Issa as a governor.”
Among the issues:
* Issa, who served two stints in the military, first as an enlisted man and later as an officer, has said that he was an Army computer research and development specialist. In a 1995 interview, he said that as an officer he had spent four years in the New Mexico desert perfecting electronic warfare techniques that were later used in the 1991 Gulf War.
His military records, however, list Issa’s postings during that period as Ft. Riley, Kan., and Ft. Ord, Calif. Those records and Issa’s 1980 Army separation form make no mention of computer training or computer specialty.
The extent of Issa’s military education as an officer, according to the records, was an eight-week “motor officer” course in 1976 and a four-day “Equal Opportunity United Discussions Leaders Course” in 1978.
In the interview, Issa said he had “served at the computer facility” at Ft. Ord’s Combat Development Experimentation Command in the late 1970s and that the Army had sent him to the Boston area for computer training at a commercial school. He said he couldn’t recall the name of the school.
* During his campaign in 2000 for a seat in Congress, Issa said he had received the “highest possible” ratings in the U.S. Army. Military records show that he received a “fair” conduct rating while undergoing basic combat training at Ft. Knox, Ky., in November 1970. In June 1971, while serving with the 145th Ordnance Detachment in Manor, Pa., he received “unsatisfactory” conduct and efficiency ratings.
Later ratings were more positive.
Asked whether Issa stands behind the statement from 2000, Jonathan Wilcox, his campaign spokesman, said: “I would direct your attention to the whole military record, including his highest evaluation from Gen. Wesley Clark.” Issa received a laudatory performance review from Clark in 1980 when he was in the Army Reserve. Clark, a lieutenant colonel at the time, was one of his commanding officers.
The review praised Issa for the quality of his work and for “an unusually high standard of professional ethics.”
* During his 1998 campaign for the Senate, at a time when he was trying to link his candidacy to the legacy of former president Richard Nixon, Issa’s campaign literature said he had been a member of Nixon’s security detail.
Issa had previously claimed attendance at the 1971 World Series as part of Nixon’s security. Records show that Nixon did not attend the 1971 World Series, said Susan Naulty, archivist at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.
In recent comments to The Times, Issa has stood by his claim of having served on Nixon’s security detail, but has sidestepped the World Series claim, which has not been repeated in the current campaign.
“That’s from something years before, from a misquote, er, you know, interpretation, years before I even ran for office,” he said in an interview earlier this summer.
The Secret Service, of which Issa was not a part, provides the president’s security. Issa’s explanation for his claim is that he was part of a military bomb disposal squad that provided support to the White House. He was assigned to Nixon’s security on temporary duty, he says.
The assignment isn’t listed in Issa’s military records, but temporary duty postings aren’t always reflected in personnel files, experts said.
“I was on temporary duty at Ft. McNair back in the ‘70s,” Issa said, referring to a military installation in Washington, D.C. “That was a presidential support unit. It did various things, including it X-rayed things for the president and did travel with the president. I was a private. I got a clothing allowance to buy civilian clothes and, you know, I got temporary duty pay, and it was cool. I never said, ‘look, I was Richard Nixon’s buddy.’ ”
Issa now attributes some of these discrepancies to misunderstandings or omissions from his Army records. He blames Gov. Gray Davis for the questions about his resume, some of which were first raised by fellow Republicans in his 1998 run for the U.S. Senate.
“Gray’s job is to get you to ask 30-year-old questions,” he angrily told a Times reporter Saturday at a Sacramento rally, where he accused Davis of “felony behavior.”
“If you want to be a shill for Gray Davis’ opposition questions, go ahead. We’ve moved on.”
The Times examination of Issa’s record began with the paper’s request for copies of his military record from the National Personnel Records Center. Such documents are public records and are often examined as part of background reporting on candidates for political office.
Times reporters also began reviewing Issa’s statements about his military and business record. Subsequently, The Times contacted Democrats who had conducted research on Issa as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1998, and they pointed to additional discrepancies in Issa’s record.
Other discrepancies had been raised by Issa’s former Republican rivals. Some assertions by Issa about his past have been questioned by other news organizations.
Some of Issa’s statements in media interviews, campaign statements and official biographies have disappeared from his resume over the years.
During his 1998 campaign, Issa backed away from a claim of having started his car-alarm company “from scratch” after The Times reported that he had taken control of the business in a legal dispute with the original owners.
Other statements, such as the one about the Entrepreneur of the Year Award, have become part of the story that Issa offers voters as he runs for governor.
A spokeswoman for the Ernst & Young accounting firm, which now sponsors the Entrepreneur of the Year competition, said that Issa was one of several winners in the San Diego Entrepreneur of the Year contest in 1994 and was a finalist at least one previous year and possibly two.
Wilcox, Issa’s campaign spokesman, said Monday that he had written the biography on the “Issa for Governor” Web site that was launched earlier this month “from previous and existing biographical information.” He acknowledged that he initially thought from reading the material that Issa had won the national award.
“If there was any mistake on any bio, I wish somebody would point it out to me so we can clarify what is a small, honest error,” he said.
Issa speaks often of his rise from a humble upbringing as the grandson of Lebanese immigrants in Cleveland to millionaire manufacturer of car alarms.
In his first run for office in 1998, in which he opposed Matt Fong for the Republican nomination to run against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, Issa’s campaign literature promised that Issa’s “up-from-the-bootstraps, career in the military, success in business tale will connect with Californians of every walk of life.”
His congressional Web site bills the story as “Living the American Dream.”
Some of the most persistent questions about that biography involve Issa’s arrest record as a young man. He has been charged twice with car theft, although both cases were later dismissed. He was charged twice with carrying a concealed weapon.
On Jan. 16, 1973, Issa pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of possession of an unregistered gun. A magistrate fined him $100, put him on probation and ordered him to pay $107 in court costs. At the time, Issa was a student at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich. The arrest was first reported by the Adrian Daily Telegram on July 16.
Asked earlier this month about that arrest, Issa told a Times reporter that the gun was an “unloaded, never-fired, in-the-box, little teeny pistol” and said it wasn’t his, although he declined to say whose it was.
Public records obtained by The Times show that when arrested, Issa was carrying a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol with seven bullets in its ammunition clip, as well as 44 bullets and a tear-gas gun. He was arrested after being stopped for driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street.
In a telephone interview, Donald Payne, the now-retired police officer from Adrian who was one of two arresting officers on the case, said Issa hadn’t contested his ownership of the gun at the time. “He was like, ‘this ain’t no big deal,’ you know,” Payne said. “He was sitting there saying ‘in Ohio you could carry a gun.’ ”
Payne, whose account is backed up by the records from the arrest, recalled that Issa had told him that in Ohio, where he was from, to carry a concealed gun, “all you had to have was a reason, and his reason was for protecting his car and himself.”
‘Story Was Phony’
But “at that time, a Michigan off-duty officer couldn’t carry a gun in Ohio, so we knew his story was phony,” Payne said.
Asked about the discrepancies between Issa’s statements about the 1972 incident and police records, Wilcox said: “Congressman Issa truthfully recalled the minute details of a minor incident from 31 years ago.”
Other questions have involved Issa’s military record. In a September 1990 profile in the San Diego Tribune, at a time when the nation was flush with patriotic fervor and poised for war after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Issa elaborated on his own Army service.
Two details were particularly striking: the account of his having attending the 1971 World Series as part of Nixon’s security detail and his account of having turned down an Army offer to send him to prep school and the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“I called my father,” Issa was quoted as saying, “and he told me, ‘You really don’t want to go to the academy.’ I took his advice.”
Issa’s military records do not reflect an offer by the military to send him to prep school and West Point, although the records would not necessarily do so. Asked Saturday whether he had considered attending West Point, Issa responded angrily.
“I was an ROTC-commissioned officer,” he said. “That’s the end of the story. West Point is an irrelevant part. The prep school at West Point is an irrelevant part.”
“My personal military record was illegally obtained by the Boxer campaign from somebody from the White House” under the Clinton administration, he added.
“We’re quite convinced of it, whether we can prove it or not. There are details and details and details that have been used against me that are minutiae. At some point you look and say, I’m releasing to you all the publicable records of my military career, and that’s it.”